Diary-turned-book a big seller for historical society

November 18, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Published excerpts of a diary penned by a Berkeley County, W.Va., woman during the Civil War is turning out to be a big seller for the Berkeley County Historical Society.

Sarah Morgan McKown wrote extensively about her experiences during the Civil War when she lived in a two-story house near Gerrardstown, W.Va., that still stands.

McKown's diary - divided into 39 volumes each about the size of a small notebook - has been known among historians for years, said Don Wood, president of the historical society.


Realizing the significance of the diaries, West Virginia University Libraries converted them to microfilm in 1955, Wood said.

Now the diaries have become the source of another project.

James V. Hutton Jr., a writer who lives in Winchester, Va., and has written other books about Berkeley County history, lifted excerpts from McKown's diary and published them in his own book.

Hutton printed 200 copies of the Sarah Morgan McKown Dairy. After Hutton recouped his printing expenses through sales of the book, he donated the rest of the proceeds to the historical society, Wood said.

Proceeds from the book are helping to pay for the development of an archives center the historical society is establishing in a house next door to its 126 E. Race St. location.

The book has been selling fast and only about 20 copies remain, said Wood, who believes a second printing is possible.

Wood says McKown's diary entries are unusual in that they describe how life went on in the county - seemingly in a casual manner - while the brutal war between the states raged.

That is in contrast to some other writers who have said that life was a struggle during that time period in Berkeley County, Wood said.

McKown, a mother of four who farmed with her family at their home, describes in her diary how she traveled routinely to towns such as Martinsburg and Frederick, Md., to give music lessons to students, and to do other chores.

She often fed soldiers from both sides inside her house, and she recounted how she returned from one of her trips to Frederick one day to find a number of soldiers had shown up at her house for dinner.

"It's almost like a hotel with people coming and going. She doesn't speak of a shortage of food. This is something I don't get," Wood said.

There were skirmishes in Martinsburg during the war, but oftentimes there were only periodic reminders that the conflict was ongoing, Wood said.

McKown blends everyday agricultural life experiences with observations such as soldiers moving up and down the road in front of her house and hearing cannon blasts in the distance.

"More soldiers and wagons passing than usual," McKown writes in an entry dated Oct. 26, 1862. "They are hauling hay and took a good deal of leather from Mr. Parks," she writes.

Friday, Oct. 17, appeared to be a slower day at the Civil War meal table.

"Two gentlemen took breakfast. The armies seem to be getting nearer together. We are fearful of a fight here," McKown writes.

McKown's house is known today as Marshy Dell and the house along W.Va. 51 just east of Gerrardstown is owned by John Douglas Miller.

Remaining copies of Hutton's book can be purchased for $35 at the Historical Society, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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